Some thoughts on Iolanthe

On the 24th of February, my husband and I went to the London Coliseum to watch the English National Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, which the press release and programme notes mention is the first after 40 years. It was a packed matinee performance and it didn’t disappoint as the audience laughed along to the witty dialogue, physical comedy and catchy tunes with a bit of audience participation thrown in.

Iolanthe

Iolanthe or The Peer and Peri is one of many collaborations between composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and writer Sir W.S. Gilbert which included The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and Patience. In Iolanthe, the title character is a fairy recalled from her exile after breaking the law that forbade a fairy from consorting with a mortal. The sentence was originally death but the Fairy Queen had this commuted to exile on condition that she never sees her husband again. Iolanthe and her husband part but not before they manage to have a son – Strephon – who becomes a shepherd and who has no idea who his father is.

Twenty five years later, Strephon has fallen in love with Phyllis, a shepherdess, and proposed marriage to her but she is ward of the Chancery under the Lord Chancellor  and he has forbidden the match: declaring that Strephon is not a suitable match for Phyllis. There is also the added complication that the Lord Chancellor wants to make Phyllis his wife and further complicating matters is that several members of the House of Lords are also smitten with the young shepherdess. Strephon asks his mother for help and due to mistaken identity, an angry Phyllis breaks off the engagement and declares that she will consider marrying either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat.

More chaos ensures as the Fairy Queen causes the election of Strephon as a Member of Parliament with his proposed bills passing through Parliament. One bill particularly alarms the House of Lords – a bill that would open the upper house based on merit to those who pass a competitive examination. The peers plead with the fairies to lift the curse but love is in the air as the fairies fall in love with the peers. Meanwhile Strephon learns that his father is the Lord Chancellor and Iolanthe risks death by revealing herself to the Lord Chancellor who is surprised to learn to his wife is still alive and that he has a son. The Fairy Queen arrives to carry out the punishment on Iolanthe for having violated the terms of her exile and then realises that she will have to carry out the same punishment on all the fairies. Everyone is saved by the Lord Chancellor who makes a legal intervention by adding a single word to existing fairy law –  “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” With this, the Fairy Queen agrees and the peers rush off to join the fairies in fairy land.

Gilbert and Sullivan used their operas to poke fun at anyone and everyone in British society and there were no sacred cows for this duo. Everyone was fair game – politicians, the army, the aristocracy, the royals, civil servants, the law, fads and ideologies. With Iolanthe, both men returned to two targets that they had previously lampooned; the aristocracy and the law. One main theme that recurs time and again in Iolanthe is the absurdity of the hereditary system as embodied in the House of Lords. As one of the main characters, Lord Mountararat sings:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

The song itself belies Lord Mountararat’s self-awareness that he has reached where he is due to accident of birth. Not through hard work or pluck but simply because of who his antecedents were. By this point in real life the House of Commons was slowly opening up to men who had reached Parliament due to hard work and merit but the House of Lords remained entrenched in their ways and were resistant to any attempts at reform. When Strephon proposes to open the House of Lords to competitive examination, the number between the peers and Strephon seems to read as a premonition of the showdown between the Lords and the Commons that resulted into the Parliament Act of 1911:

PEERS:

Young Strephon is the kind of lout

We do not care a fig about!

We cannot say

What evils may

Result in consequence

But lordly vengeance will pursue

All kinds of common people who

Oppose our views,

Or boldly choose

To offer us offence.

FAIRIES, PHYLLIS, and STREPHON:

With Strephon for your foe, no doubt,

A fearful prospect opens out,

And who shall say

What evils may

Result in consequence?

A hideous vengeance will pursue

All noblemen who venture to

Oppose his views,

Or boldly choose

To offer him offence.

Of course in the opera, love conquers all as a change in the law allows the fairies and the mortals to marry each other without any fear of death. In real life, the peerage itself – already under assault by financial crises – would be dealt with more blows that perhaps not even Gilbert and Sullivan could have ever foreseen. However if both men were alive during the first half of the twentieth century, they would have certainly have found more material to lampoon the aristocracy and perhaps even P.G. Wodehouse would struggle to compete with Gilbert’s dialogue and Sullivan’s music.

However back to the ENO’s production – the acting and singing were spot on and under the direction of Cal MacCrystal who recently directed last year’s film hit Paddington 2, the acting and singing were anchored by touches of physical comedy, just enough but not overdoing it. This production has also remained faithful to how Gilbert and Sullivan envisioned it and mercifully, we have been spared any references to current events. Instead what we have is simply over two hours of sublime music and comedy. I hope that we won’t have to wait another 40 years for another staging of this classic.

 

The English National Opera’s porduction of Iolanthe is on at the London Coliseum until 7 April. For more information, please click on this link: https://www.eno.org/operas/iolanthe/ and https://www.eno.org/whats-on/iolanthe/

 

 

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Books to ease your Downton Abbey withdrawals (Part 2 – Fiction & Academic)

For part 1 – see here

FICTION:

Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man

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The first in a trilogy, like The Shooting Party this is England before the Great War, but instead of the landed classes Sassoon writes an autobiographical portrait of English country life as it was for the minor gentry. Mellow, nostalgic and in the words of a contemporary review, bathed in a golden atmosphere of orchards, horse tack, linseed oil and leather bound, unopened books. Nostalgia at its finest.

 

Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

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The second part of the trilogy and a fictionalised story of Sassoon’s experiences on the Western Front that drove him to express his opposition to the war. Like Brittain, deeply personal and moving (but a great deal shorter).

 

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

gobetween

A apparent pastoral idyll hiding betrayal, love, deceit and desire and a young boy’s awakening to the realisation of how adults can use each other and even children to get what they want if they want it badly enough. Like so many of our choices, set just before World War One in the hot summer of 1900 and portraying a way of life that was within a decade to disappear for ever.

 

Isabel Colegate – The Shooting Party

shooting party

A short but flawless novel that is a snapshot of the Edwardian upper classes at play on the brink of war – confident, certain of their place in the world and the superiority of their class and country but with the first hairline cracks of uncertainty starting to appear.

 

C.S. Forester – The General

the general

Writing these comments it’s very noticeable that for our choices war or the imminence of war is a theme, and of course that’s inevitable if you are exploring the era when Downton is set – Julian Fellowes must be the only writer I’ve come across who writes about this period and apart from one series manages to pretty much ignore the very large historical fact of World War One and its effects on people decades after it ended. This is a superb novel about a decent, brave and wholly unimaginative man who is far from evil or wicked yet sends men to appalling slaughter. CS Forester has long been one of my favourite writers and he had a fascination for flawed, awkward people: and while the author recognises his hero’s flaws and failings are inevitable because of his lack of imagination, he also does him justice as a human being. One of the must reads on this list.

 

J.L Carr – A Month in the Country

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A damaged survivor of the Great War recalls the summer of 1920 he spent in Yorkshire: how the village and its people were a place of refuge, healing, love and friendship, and a precious memory he has carried with him for years. Lyrical and beautifully written.

 

Winifred Holtby – South Riding

south riding

Set slightly later than Downton Abbey, this is a novel about the lives, loves and politics of  a town in 1930s Yorkshire – blighted by the war and coming to terms with significant social change.

 

Vita Sackville-West – The Edwardians

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A thinly disguised account of Knole and members of the Sackville-West family, this novel published in 1930 explores dual themes such as tradition and change, duty and pleasure. While this can be seen as a critique of the emptiness and vacuity of the aristocracy and their way of life it also represents a labour of love for Vita in her description of Knole, its history and the symbiotic relationship of the house with everyone who depends on it for a living.

 

P.G. Wodehouse – Blandings novels

No mention of the post WW1 era would be complete without a mention of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings novels. Set at an indeterminate period between 1918 and 1939, they evoke a golden age of the middle and upper classes wholly unthreatened by punitive increases in taxation, social unrest, Bolshevism, socialism or any of the concerns of real life in the 20s and 30s. Like Downton Abbey they exist in an idealised bubble where the aristocracy are supreme  and everyone except his family defers to the earl while having their own (not necessarily flattering) opinions about him. Unlike Downton Abbey however they evoke the period with tiny but deft touches, are superbly written and very funny.

 

 

ACADEMIC:

 

David Cannadine – The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

cannadine

Before the 1870s, the British aristocracy was at the height of its power but in less than a decade later their long descent into impotence and irrelevance had begun. Cannadine’s magisterial study charts their decline and fall aided and abetted by a combination of new challenges from other socio-economic groups for long marginalised and were now challenging and battling the aristocracy for power and control, punitive taxation, and from industry and cheap imports from abroad. The First World War and its aftermath led to a huge blow from which the aristocracy has never recovered since. Highly recommended.

 

Diane Urquhart – The Ladies of Londonderry: Women and Political Patronage

Aristocratic women like their middle and working class counterparts might not have legal and political rights but they could make a difference through their charity work; patronage of the arts, sciences, religion and education and  entertaining. Using the Marchionesses of Londonderry as a case study, Urquhart examines how their work and efforts particularly in the field of charity, the war effort and political entertaining have had mixed results but all the time wholly consistent with the aristocratic notion of public service and duty.

 

Maureen E. Montgomery -‘Gilded Prostitution’: Status, Money and transatlantic marriages, 1870-1914

It wasn’t only in Britain where transatlantic marriages between the aristocracy and American heiresses were unpopular but also in America where following a backlash, they were increasingly being seen as unpatriotic, a betrayal of the American Dream and the ideals of the Founding Fathers. At the risk of sounding like Samuel Huntington here, this was a “clash of civilisations” where the values of the New World in which egalitarianism and merit reigned supreme were being challenged by the desire for status and social acceptance.

 

Jose Harris – Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914

harris

Charting changes in British society in the forty odd years before WW1 around themes such as demography, family and household, property, work, religion, society and state; Harris presents a succinct and well-argued view that the notion of public virtue is what kept Britain relatively stable despite its own social and economic problems and how social policy was increasingly becoming the concern of the state thereby laying the foundations of the welfare state that came into being following the Second World War.

 

Dominic Lieven – The Aristocracy in Europe 1815-1914

A comparative study of the British, German and Russian aristocracies, Lieven charts how they met the challenges facing their class and their countries and deduces some common threads that were the factors for the decline and fall of the British, German and Russian aristocracies namely the rise of the middle class, industrialisation and professionalism in the military, civil service and the government.

 

Andrew Adonis – Making Aristocracy Work: The Peerage and the Political System in Britain, 1884-1914

While Cannadine’s study looks at a broader picture of the decline and fall of the aristocracy, Adonis’ work focus more on the aristocracy from a purely political aspect and argues that not only was their power steadily eroded by the growing number of middle and working class MPs but crucially the clash over the budgets in 1909 and 1910 paved the way for the Parliament Act on 1911 which signalled the end of the House of Lords’ power of veto and a blow from which they have never recovered.

 

Eugenio F. Biagini and Alastair J. Reid (eds) Currents of Radicalism: Popular radicalism, organised labour and party politics in Britain, 1850-1914

These collection of essays charts the rise of radicalism and the labour movement becoming a political force in Britain challenging both the aristocracy and the middle classes but at the same time working with these groups to ensure that grievances against pay, working conditions and being denied the vote were taken seriously and acted upon.

 

Bloggers’ Recommendations:

A.L. Carr                         A Month in the Country

Isobel Colegate            The Shooting Party

Vera Brittain                Testament of Youth

David Cannadine        The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

C.S. Forester                 The General

Catherine Bailey         Black Diamonds